EAST DUBUQUE, Ill. — Almost every day, Jack Elrick takes a walk to East Dubuque District Library.
The 74-year-old is legally blind and, thus, unable to drive, so almost every afternoon, he treks down the hill from the Bell Tower Retirement community and crosses Wisconsin Avenue, all to get on a computer.
“I try to look at areas of global warming,” Elrick said. “It’s something I’m passionate about.”
After about five years of regular attendance, Elrick has become quite popular among staff.
“Everyone knows Jack,” said Library Director Jessica Arnold. “Even when it’s storming or raining, he walks down here.”
Like many library patrons nowadays, Elrick’s visits to the library are spurred by its offerings beyond books.
Many of the country’s more than 16,500 library buildings have been around for decades or longer, but they continue to evolve to serve the needs of residents who increasingly also want access to the internet, or DVDs, or music, or cooking pans, or a range of other items.
“This evolution is a race,” said Susan Henricks, director of Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque. “We’re at the point where we need to figure out what people want before they want it. That’s how we stay relevant.”
Going beyond books
Public libraries continue to evolve as facilities with a wide array of offerings, and research shows that users are taking advantage.
A comprehensive look at public libraries by Pew Research Center in 2016 showed that books still were king: 64 percent of visitors reported that one reason they go to a library is to borrow books.
But 27 percent reported another reason was to attend classes, programs or lectures; 29 percent said they wanted to use the computers, internet or public Wi-Fi; and 13 percent said a reason was to use 3-D printer or “other high-tech devices.”
Sonya Hudspeth, of Dubuque, doesn’t have a computer at home, so she visits Carnegie-Stout once per week to check her email and do some online shopping.
“It’s convenient for me to use it here,” she said. “I think it’s nice that I have somewhere I can get on the internet.”
And the reasons to visit the library don’t stop there.
“There’s a demand to have things available that people want to check out but don’t want to buy,” Arnold said. “The modern individual is more on the move, so it helps when a local library can help them with getting something that wouldn’t make sense to buy otherwise.”
Those items can range from kitchen supplies, to tools, to mobile internet hot spots.
Time of change — again
This isn’t the first time that libraries have seen a significant change in what they offer to their communities.
At the beginning of the 20th century, libraries were seen entirely as an educational institution and only provided nonfiction books and newspapers, Henricks said.
However, as fiction writing increased in popularity, more libraries introduced novels into their collection.
“Libraries knew that if they didn’t adapt to what people wanted, they would be phased out,” Henricks said. “They had to introduce fiction.”
The 21st century has seen the internet flourish, putting huge quantities of information at people’s fingertips — much of which they previously had to rely on library books for.
That has led some libraries to reduce the size of their reference sections and decrease how often they purchase a new encyclopedia set.
The ever-expanding reach of online options continues to spur libraries to adapt. For example, e-readers and online retailers provide options for residents who in the past would have come to the library to check out books, particularly fiction titles.
“Today, libraries are competing with companies like Amazon,” said Nita Burke, director of Galena (Ill.) Public Library. “Those companies put libraries in a position where it was discovered that we now need to find our market.”
Staff at many libraries have sought to embrace new technology as it emerges, quickly making public-use computers with internet access commonplace and making items such as DVDs and music available to patrons.
Carnegie-Stout in Dubuque recorded more than 260,000 visits last year and about 630,000 items checked out. About 30 percent of those items — or more than 188,000 — were DVDs.
Tim Welu, of Dubuque, doesn’t subscribe to cable TV. Instead, he comes to Carnegie-Stout twice per week to check out movies and television shows on DVD.
“I got rid of cable and just do this instead,” he said. “They don’t get everything right away, but they eventually do.”
Smaller libraries have followed suit. East Dubuque District Library maintains its collection of 24,230 print materials, but it also has more than 4,000 DVDs and 1,459 CDs.
Others have gone a step further by purchasing e-book readers and other digital-reading methods. Most recently, several local libraries started renting out mobile hot spots, portable devices that allow people to gain access to the internet at any location.
“Some people don’t have the internet at home, so they check out these hot spots so they can have internet at their home for a period of time,” Arnold said.
Fifteen people were on the waiting list for hot spots from Carnegie-Stout last week, according to Henricks.
And the range of items available to be checked out keeps growing.
Some libraries have expanded their offerings to include items such as cooking pans or bicycles.
“People are surprised by all the stuff that we check out,” Henrichs said. “Our approach is that if there is a demand, we will try to make it available.”
That philosophy has resulted in many libraries coming up with specialized services.
Staff at the Galena library started a seed-lending service. The “seed library” allows local gardeners to check out seeds, grow and harvest the resulting plants and then return seeds recovered.
Burke said the initiative, like many of her library’s new services, was born out of creativity and a demand from patrons.
“It’s something that has a lot of interest,” Burke said. “It’s unique, but it works well.”
Henricks said staff at the Dubuque library consistently tries to introduce new services and items. They are working to create a recording studio in which patrons can make podcasts or do voice-overs. They also continue to explore virtual-reality technology for patrons to check out.
“We are trying to be creative in coming up with new offerings,” Henricks said. “We want to create more reasons for people to come and use the library.”
Consistently adding to and diversifying their offerings sometimes can be a more difficult proposition for smaller, rural libraries, which can face both budget and space constraints.
“We would love to bring all these new and exciting things to the library, but it would be very challenging for us to do,” Arnold said.
While there might be a demand to introduce more items, staff are often unsure of where these items could go in generally small facilities.
“Limited space is something we’re always dealing with,” said Amber Majerus, director of Cuba City (Wis.) Public Library. “We have to decide what we keep on our shelves and what has to go.”
Smaller libraries that want to expand often do not have the funding to do so, and finding enough local support can be challenging.
Arnold said East Dubuque’s library has had space issues for several years. In 2014, the library asked East Dubuque voters to approve a tax increase to support a $1.3 million expansion, but the proposal was struck down twice that year in elections.
Space issues remain a concern, and that, in turn, limits the ways the library staff can expand its offerings to residents. Arnold said local support for the library remains, but she fears the facility is not able to meet modern demands.
“There are so many things that we want to do, but we are just limited with space,” Arnold said. “The idea of checking out kayaks and sewing machines sounds like a great idea, but I don’t know where we would put them.”
The less quiet library
Library programming isn’t new. Offerings such as children’s story time and book clubs have been a mainstay for many libraries, but many facilities continue to diversify their offerings.
Last year, East Dubuque District Library developed 240 programs for children and adults.
“Libraries aren’t that quiet anymore,” Arnold said. “Programming has increased dramatically. There’s always something going on.”
Henricks said more libraries have focused on developing programs that appeal to adults and expanding children’s programs. These can range from educational classes to events that are more designed for entertainment.
Last year, Carnegie-Stout hosted 782 programs, which garnered a total of 22,300 attendees.
“It’s a part of the way that we are evolving,” Henricks said. “We have hundreds of programs going on every year, and we want to continue to see it grow.”
Smaller libraries have followed suit. Burke said Galena library staff has looked to introduce more programs for both children and adults. They include a monthly Lego building club and an adult group that learns about and discusses Civil War history.
“That social aspect at the library is becoming very big,” Burke said. “Programs have become an important element.”
The success of these programs can vary wildly. Henricks said she is often surprised to see what events have strong attendance.
“We had a program where people play with Nerf guns in the library, and ... we had a presentation on human trafficking,” Henricks said. “Both of them were really popular.”
Programming ideas are traditionally generated by staff, which can pose some problems. Henricks noted that it has become important for the library to make sure its programming content reaches a wide array of ages and appeals to both genders.
However, 81 percent of librarians were women in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
With that gender disparity, Henricks said, it is important for library staff to also try to find programming that appeals to men.
“Guys don’t want to come and decorate cupcakes,” Henricks said. “There might be some that might like that, but we want to make sure that there is also stuff that men will enjoy.”
Changing the layout and identity
As the services that libraries provide continue to change, staff look to make their facilities better equipped to meet these changes.
“Libraries are becoming more active, so it makes sense to provide spaces that allow for that activity,” Arnold said.
In 2016, Carnegie-Stout introduced its “makerspace:” a room specifically designed to allow patrons to use a variety of library-bought equipment, from cameras to 3-D printers.
Henricks said the introduction of the space shows how libraries are devoting more of their square footage to diverse uses.
“Libraries are becoming more of a community living room,” Henricks said. “We’re creating more spaces for people to come and utilize the library in whatever way they want.”
The 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of people feel that libraries should offer more comfortable places for reading, working and relaxing.
In response to another question, 24 percent strongly supported moving books into storage to create more community spaces, while another 40 percent think libraries should consider that option.
Arnold said that demand for more community space shows that libraries are becoming closer to a community center than they have ever been. In many small towns, libraries have become an essential recreational source for children and families.
“We are the only place that people can come to year round and have something to do,” Arnold said. “Even if you want to come in and relax, the library provides that.”
Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of people feel that the closing of their local library would have a significant impact on their community.
Michael Wright, director of Dubuque County Library District, said the changing role of libraries has become particularly beneficial to small towns. For them, something as simple as having a place to access a computer is essential.
The library district has branches in Asbury, Epworth, Farley, Holy Cross and Peosta.
“Not everyone has broadband out in rural towns,” he said. “Having a computer where you can get on the internet can be a big deal for a lot of people.”
Henricks said libraries are likely to devote increasing amounts of space to programming and other technologies as time goes on. Part of the future challenge for libraries will be balancing the push to introduce more activities and open spaces with the still generally strong demand for books.
“Our circulation of fiction is still really strong,” Henricks said. “That remains an important part of libraries, despite how much we have changed.”
As interests from the public continue to change, Wright said libraries are likely to continue to try to meet those demands. In the end, he feels that libraries only continue to improve.
“It’s an amazing period as far as change goes,” he said. “Libraries are becoming more and more of an essential service.”